Discover fascinating history, fantastic food, cutting-edge art galleries and a year-round party scene in one of Asia’s most exciting cities … once you’ve mastered the art of dodging the motorbikes, that is.
Vietnam’s largest city has sprawled from the small Khmer village of Prey Nokor, once surrounded by prowling tigers, through a century of opium-raddled French colonialism, to today’s manic, modern metropolis stalked by glassy skyscrapers – a rapacious capitalist machine powering a one-party socialist republic.
Once you’ve reconciled the tropical heat with a city permanently garlanded in Christmas fairy lights, and mastered how to wade through the rivers of motorbikes flowing through the city’s streets (just launch into the traffic and don’t stop or hesitate), embrace the addictive madness in one of south-east Asia’s most exciting cities.
Day one: the historic heart of Ho Chi Minh City
The French put their new capital of Cochin China back on the drawing board. The belle époque Opera House, once the National Assembly, sits pretty on Lam Son Square, the historic heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Either side are the Hotel Continental, famous as Graham Greene’s bolthole (this is where he conceived The Quiet American), and the towering Hotel Caravelle, where foreign correspondents would sink drinks at the 10th-floor bar during the Vietnam War. Walk west down Le Loi to City Hall, the decorative French-built Hôtel de Ville, before heading north up Dong Khoi to the diminutive Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, built with red bricks from Marseille, in Paris Square. Overlooking the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, embellished with Khmer and French accents, and dominated inside its great hall by an enormous portrait of Vietnam’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Break for coffee, or a cooling juice in La Fenêtre Soleil (44 Ly Tu Trong, corner of Pasteur, +84 8 3824 5994), a shabby-chic French nook, before exploring the boutiques of Dong Khoi and District 1: jewellery, fashion and collectibles atL’Usine, French crockery and threads at pretty Liti, and the extraordinary Saigon Socialite carved shoes of fair-trade Fashion4Freedom at the House of Saigon. Post-purchases, lunch on Vietnamese caramelised pork salad and mango, and passion fruit and yoghurt smoothie in L’Usine’s industrial-chic surrounds, which are flooded with light.
Intriguing, and little known, is the Weapons Store, a secret bunker in an unassuming house that was stashed with weapons and soldiers to prepare for the 1968 Tet Offensive. Veteran Nguyen Quang Vinh guides visitors through the floor hatch to the bunker in the busy hem (alley) at 287/70 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3.
Vietnamese – and international – cuisine flatters HCMC’s culinary reputation. Depending on your mood (and your wallet), head for the meat shack, Luong Son (31 Ly Tu Trong, +84 8 3825 1330) for its signature bo tung xeo (DIY barbecue beef). For smarter surrounds (and rocking terrace parties), the jamón ibérico from acorn-fed, black-footed pigs at Pacharan will immerse you in Hispanic terroir in downtown. Just around the corner is Blanchy’s Tash for DJs and cocktails in sleek surrounds. End the night at Last Call Saigon with an experimental cocktail in this louche, downtown drinking den – try the Mekong mojito or the U Minh Forest.
Day two: beyond the Historic Quarter
Historian Tim Doling’s HCMC walking tour (£28) transports you through the city’s history with insightful nuggets on imperial intrigue, Graham Greene, war correspondents, and piracy. Tim walks you past the French Customs building, peppered with opium poppy motifs, and the intriguing State Bank of Vietnam, a hybrid of classical architecture and Khmer accents. The Khmer rooftop trim is best seen from a pop-up cafe in an abandoned apartment block at 14 Ton That Dam Street. Climb to the Mockingbird Cafe at the top for the bank views; other pop-ups include The Other Person Café, with its giant biscuits, lollipop features and cream tart seat, and the stylish faux apartment, Things Café. The nearby Bitexco tower, the tallest building in the city at 262 metres, charges £6 for its Skydeck views. Several bars and restaurants on the upper tiers don’t charge for entry, but the drink prices are sky high.
Taxi or xe ôm (motorbike taxi) across town for avocado milk shakes, chicken in Chinese soup and iced tea under the umbrella of a tropical almond tree at The Lunch Lady (23 Hoang Sa) in a resurgent corner of District 1. Bunched up under the revitalised Rach Thi Nghe canal are the acclaimed Craig Thomas Gallery – think blow-torched portraits on wood, and elaborate impressions of Nguyen Dynasty emperors painted onto antique doors – neighbouring Chuck’s Cafe (+84 90 211 9530), with its American menu and comical lavatory feature, and Café If (38 Dang Dung, +84 8 3846 9853) which billows tropical greenery in the courtyard garden of a French villa.
Where the canal flows east into the Saigon river, discover San Art, champions of contemporary art where a fine line is trodden between what’s approved and what’s jettisoned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture (photos and installations by artist Phan Quang were censored in 2013, but the show went ahead with signs reading “Not allowed for exhibition” where the art work had been hung). Sophie’s Art Tours (£33) introduce visitors to San Art, and the city’s emerging art world, including underground artists at brand new indy arts hub Saigon Rangers and at new Sao La in the grounds of the Fine Arts Museum.
In the same canal corner of District 1, Cuc Gach Quan, with its artfully arranged objets d’art, is a chic restaurant in two locations on the same street. Feast on its extensive, tasty Vietnamese menu. Close by is deciBel (79/2/5 Phan Ke Binh, +84 8 6271 0115), dedicated to food, drinks, avant-garde films, music and events.
Day three: off the beaten track
In the coastal district south-east of Ho Chi Minh City is the Unesco biosphere reserve of Can Gio. The Les Rives takes you by road by luxury speedboat through the mangroves, a market, and fishing village, with lunch of Mekong elephant ear fish (around £65, seven to nine hours).
Alternatively, if you can’t get enough of the city, the history buffs at Vietnam Vespa Adventures lead a Saigon Wartime Memories tour where visitors ride pillion on a lacquer-black Vespa while the guides weave through traffic to hidden sights (£43). Alternatively, the ladies of Xo Tours, who wear ao dai, the traditional female dress of Vietnam, will show you Saigon at night on a motorbike cruising tour (£24) to outlying districts, including Chinatown, with time to chow down – banh mi (Vietnamese baguette) or (grilled pork with broken rice).
Serious foodies should think about a dedicated trail. Back of the Bike Tourssavour Vietnamese street food on a mobile culinary adventure (£35).
On your last night, head skyward, first to Shri for the nighttime panorama of twinkling HCMC. Cross the river to Saigon Outcast in District 2, a pile of containers-cum-bar in a graffitied yard which offers everything from a swimming pool cinema to skateboarding. Cargo stages live acts, DJs and theatre performances just over the river in District 4. Observatory in District 1 is a new venue shaking up Saigon’s year-round party scene with everything from late-night cocktails, DJs, and music, to art shows (open until 5am Fri and Sat). Hipsters are also flocking to new bar on the block The Cube. All-night barflies congregate in the backpacker quarter, Pham Ngu Lao. Long Phi sustains the partygoers – and the hungry – until 5am.